DC 17 Historical Background
Not many days after the above commandment (DC 17) was given, we four, viz., Martin Harris, David Whitmer, Oliver Cowdery and myself, agreed to retire into the woods, and try to obtain, by fervent and humble prayer, the fulfillment of the promises given in the above revelation-that they should have a view of the plates. We accordingly made choice of a piece of woods convenient to Mr. Whitmer's house, to which we retired, and having knelt down, we began to pray in much faith to Almighty God to bestow upon us a realization of these promises.
According to previous arrangement, I commenced vocal prayer to our Heavenly Father, and was followed by each of the others in succession. We did not at the first trial, however, obtain any answer or manifestation of divine favor in our behalf. We again observed the same order of prayer, each calling on and praying fervently to God in rotation, but with the same result as before.
Upon this, our second failure, Martin Harris proposed that he should withdraw himself from us, believing, as he expressed himself, that his presence was the cause of our not obtaining what we wished for. He accordingly withdrew from us, and we knelt down again, and had not been many minutes engaged in prayer, when presently we beheld a light above us in the air, of exceeding brightness; and behold, an angel stood before us. In his hands he held the plates which we had been praying for these to have a view of. He turned over the leaves one by one, so that we could see them, and discern the engravings thereon distinctly. He then addressed himself to David Whitmer, and said, "David, blessed is the Lord, and he that keeps His commandments;" when, immediately afterwards, we heard a voice from out of the bright light above us, saying, "These plates have been revealed by the power of God, and they have been translated by the power of God. The translation of them which you have seen is correct, and I command you to bear record of what you now see and hear."
I now left David and Oliver, and went in pursuit of Martin Harris, whom I found at a considerable distance, fervently engaged in prayer. He soon told me, however, that he had not yet prevailed with the Lord, and earnestly requested me to join him in prayer, that he also might realize the same blessings which we had just received. We accordingly joined in prayer, and ultimately obtained our desires, for before we had yet finished, the same vision was opened to our view, at least it was again opened to me, and I once more beheld and heard the same things; whilst at the same moment, Martin Harris cried out, apparently in an ecstasy of joy, "'Tis enough; 'tis enough; mine eyes have beheld; mine eyes have beheld;" and jumping up, he shouted, "Hosanna," blessing God, and otherwise rejoiced exceedingly.
Having thus, through the mercy of God, obtained these glorious manifestations, it now remained for these three individuals to fulfill the commandment which they had received, viz., to bear record of these things... (History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 52-56)
DC 17:1 you shall have a view of the plates, and...the breastplate, the sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim...and the miraculous directors
When we think of the Three Witnesses to the Book of Mormon, we sometimes forget that they were witnesses to a lot more than just the gold plates. They saw an angel of God; they heard a voice from heaven; they were shown the Sword of Laban, the Urim and Thummim, the Liahona, and other plates which were displayed on a table before them.
We not only saw the plates of the Book of Mormon but also the brass plates, the plates of the Book of Ether, the plates containing the records of the wickedness and secret combinations of the people of the world down to the time of their being engraved, and many other plates ... there appeared as it were, a table with many records or plates upon it, besides the plates of the Book of Mormon, also the Sword of Laban, the Directors i.e., the ball which Lehi had-and the Interpreters [Urim and Thummim]. I saw them just as plain as I see this bed (striking the bed beside him with his hand), and I heard the voice of the Lord, as distinctly as I ever heard anything in my life declaring that the records of the plates of the Book of Mormon were translated by the gift and power of God. (1878 interview between Orson Pratt and David Whitmer, recorded in Book of Mormon Compendium, pp. 55-56)
DC 17:3 you shall testify of them by the power of God
[Oliver Cowdery] saw and conversed with the angel, who showed him the plates, and he handled them. He left the Church because he lost the love of the truth; and after he had travelled alone for years, a gentleman walked into his law office and said to him, "Mr. Cowdery, what do you think of the Book of Mormon now? Do you believe that it is true?" He replied, "No, sir, I do not." "Well," said the gentleman, "I thought as much; for I concluded that you had seen the folly of your ways and had resolved to renounce what you once declared to be true." "Sir, you mistake me: I do not believe that the Book of Mormon is true; I am past belief on that point, for I KNOW that it is true, as well as I know that you now sit before me." "Do you still testify that you saw an angel?" "Yes, as much as I see you now; and I know the Book of Mormon to be true." (Eldin Ricks, The Case of The Book of Mormon Witnesses [Deseret News Press, 1971], 8.)
I now solemnly state that as I was praying unto the Lord that I might behold the ancient record, lo there appeared to view a holy angel, and before him a table, and upon the table the holy spectacles or Urim and Thummim, and other ancient relics of the Nephites, and lo, the Angel did take up the plates, and turn them over so as we could plainly see the engravings thereon, and lo there came a voice from heaven saying "I am the Lord," and that the plates were translated by God and not by men, and also that we should bear record of it to all the world, and thus the vision was taken from us . . . No man ever heard me in any way deny the truth of the Book of Mormon [or] the administration of the angel that showed me the plates. The Lord has shown me these things by his Spirit. (Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 156 - 157.)
I wish now, standing as it were, in the very sunset of life, and in the fear of God, once [and] for all to make this public statement:
That I have never at any time denied that testimony or any part thereof, which has so long since been published with that Book, as one of the three witnesses. Those who know me best, well know that I have always adhered to that testimony. And that no man may be misled or doubt my present views in regard to the same, I do again affirm the truth of all of my statements, as then made and published.
"He that hath an ear to hear, let him hear;" it was no delusion! What is written is written, and he that readeth let him understand.
Beware how you hastily condemn that book which I know to be the word of God; for his own voice and an angel from heaven declared the truth of it unto me, and to two other witnesses who testified on their death-bed that it was true.
And if these things are not true, then there is no truth; and if there is no truth, there is no God; and if there is no God, there is no existence. But I know there is a God, for I have heard His voice and witnessed the manifestation of his power. (Milton V. Backman, Jr., Eyewitness Accounts of the Restoration [Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1983], 155-156.)
DC 17:5 ye shall testify that you have seen them, even as my servant Joseph Smith, Jun.
The calling of these three witnesses was a great relief to the Prophet. He had stood alone in a skeptical world-as the only witness and testator of the gold plates. For nearly two years, the heaviness of this responsibility had weighed on his soul. The Prophet's mother describes the scene as Joseph, Martin, Oliver, and David returned from the glorious vision.
Lucy Mack Smith
When they returned to the house it was between three and four o'clock p.m. Mrs. Whitmer, Mr. Smith and myself, were sitting in a bedroom at the time. On coming in, Joseph threw himself down beside me, and exclaimed, "Father, mother, you do not know how happy I am: the Lord has now caused the plates to be shown to three more besides myself. They have seen an angel, who has testified to them, and they will have to bear witness to the truth of what I have said, for now they know for themselves, that I do not go about to deceive the people, and I feel as if I was relieved of a burden which was almost too heavy for me to bear, and it rejoices my soul, that I am not any longer to be entirely alone in the world." Upon this, Martin Harris came in: he seemed almost overcome with joy, and testified boldly to what he had both seen and heard. And so did David and Oliver, adding that no tongue could express the joy of their hearts, and the greatness of the things which they had both seen and heard. (Lucy Mack Smith, History of Joseph Smith by His Mother [Salt Lake City: Stevens & Wallis, Inc., 1945], 152 - 153.)
DC 17:6 as your Lord and your God liveth it is true
Bruce R. McConkie
One of the most solemn oaths ever given to man is found in these words of the Lord relative to Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon. "He [meaning Joseph Smith] has translated the book, even that part which I have commanded him," saith the Lord, "and as your Lord and your God liveth it is true." (D&C 17:6.)
This is God's testimony of the Book of Mormon. In it Deity himself has laid his godhood on the line. Either the book is true or God ceases to be God. There neither is nor can be any more formal or powerful language known to men or gods. ("The Doctrine of the Priesthood," Ensign, May 1982, 33.)
DC 17:8 if you do these last commandments...the gates of hell shall not prevail against you
The Three Witnesses were told that if they would testify of the record by the power of God (v. 3), the gates of hell would not prevail against them and they would be lifted up at the last day. The history of their lives after 1838 indicates that they took this promise literally in that they acted as if their very salvation depended not on membership in the church but on their faithfulness as witnesses of the Book of Mormon. All three would be excommunicated from the church by 1838. Thereafter, they continued to believe in the truth of the Book of Mormon but considered Joseph Smith to be a fallen prophet. Of course, Martin Harris and Oliver Cowdery would return to the church. But David Whitmer would not. Nevertheless, all three would hold true to their testimony even after leaving the church on bitter terms.
It has always been hard for members to understand how these three men could have fallen away and then stayed away for so long. We can only imagine why, but perhaps they interpreted DC 17:8 to mean that if they were faithful witnesses, God would lift them up at the last day-regardless of their membership in the Lord's church.